This past Monday, elected officials and public services staff people from throughout inland Mendocino County met with at least five of the State of California's highest ranking regulatory officials who deal with water issues. It was heralded as a “listening session” regarding a topic foremost on everyone's minds in Mendo-land: the drought.
The 'listening session,' which took place at the Ukiah Valley Conference Center on School St., actually involved 'listening' only to a carefully-selected and well-placed group of people, by a carefully-selected and well-placed group of people, for a carefully-selected and well-placed group of people (in the grand spirit of American democracy). The meeting was not publicly advertised. Those not on the 100 person-or-so invite list were prohibited from attending.
Apparently, the “listening session” is part of a “listening tour” whereby these same high-ranking officials will blow through numerous California towns, receive oft-contrived statements from local officials about the water problems local residents face and how they are addressing them. If Monday's proceedings in Ukiah are an indication, the officials will also pause long enough at each stop to issue a handful of generic statements designed to garner platitudes from the corporate press about how much they care about us and admire our resilience in the face of adversity.
Any topic that resides outside the status quo is designed to be excluded from these meetings. For example:
Mendo was the kick-off location of the tour, seemingly because of the surprising amount of national and international media coverage Willits' water troubles has received in the last month. Meanwhile, perhaps the greatest watershed-destroying project ever to occur in Little Lake Valley -- the entirely unnecessary Willits Bypass freeway project and its attendant “mitigation plan” that encompasses no less than one-third of the valley -- is, even now, slated to resume construction this coming April.
This rather obvious contradiction has generated precisely zero comment from the local and state officials who are in the best position to shape the discourse regarding Willits' water troubles, including Willits Mayor Holly Madrigal, who has recently been invited to testify in Sacramento concerning Willits' travails, and who at one time took a position opposing the Caltrans boondoggle. Willits City Council member Bruce Burton was on hand for Monday's water confab. But Willits City Council member Madge Strong, an outspoken opponent of the Caltrans method of dealing with Willits' traffic "problems," apparently was not invited.
I received a tip about the secretive water confab late on Monday morning, about two hours before its scheduled start. Arriving at the conference room as the proceedings were kicking off, I encountered Liz Evangelatos of the Mendocino County Sheriff's Office, who was seated at a table in front of the door with a guest list in front of her.
She informed me I was not allowed inside.
Ukiah residents Susan Knopf and Julia Dakin were the only other two uninvited gadflys on hand. I asked Evangelatos to explain the legal justification, under the Brown Act (California's open meetings law), for excluding us from the meeting.
She seemed unprepared for an interrogation about her superiors' orders to her, so I was careful not to vent her out too heavily, and instead reserve my venom (in the grand spirit of global anti-capitalism) for the people in charge, and for the system of power relations represent, which has long been destroying the health of most of the planet's watersheds and other ecosystems.
(Evangelatos later passed along her regards to AVA editor Bruce Anderson, who she told me gave her son, Malik, his first break in journalism. Malik is now a published author and television talk show host based in Cairo, Egypt.).
Out came Brandon Merritt, a friendly young chap about my age, albeit much better groomed, whose official position is “Administrative Analyst II” in the County CEO's office. Merritt has been charged with maintaining the administrative record of the Mendocino County Drought Ad Hoc Committee, initiated by Supervisor Carre Brown. He informed us that only a minority of Supervisors were in attendance, so it was legal to exclude us from the meeting under the Brown Act. He added that there wasn't enough room in the building, nor enough food, to accommodate everyone who wanted to take part.
I asked if he would let us in if we promised not to sample the catering.
I also offered him the argument that we have a right to know what information our local officials are choosing to pass on to some of Sacramento's most influential executives concerning an issue that dramatically affects all of us. He asked us why weren't at the Drought Task Force meeting on February 12th (at which no state-level officials were present).
“I was at that meeting,” Susan Knopf, a long-time Ukiah resident and watershed advocate, who is perhaps in her mid-60s, sternly informed him.
A press conference was scheduled for 2:30, so I opted to pass the time at Schat's Bakery, where I was treated to a pastry at a meeting about an upcoming expose here in the AVA on the role certain Mendocino County officials have played in strong-arming local political support for the Caltrans Willits Bypass.
When I arrived back at the conference room, a woman I didn't recognize enthusiastically greeted me and said she had just been talking about me. Before I could ask her who she was and what she had been saying, she opened the door and strolled inside, with the opening allowing me to pan the room briefly and observe roughly 100-or-so people who were seated at rows of tables facing a stage. Brandon Merritt re-emerged and escorted me into a room on the side of the building, along with Glenda Anderson of the Santa Rosa Press Democrat, the Ukiah Daily Journal's Justine Frederiksen (who asked that I help correct the AVA's persistent mis-spelling of her name), Reuters reporter Sharon Bernstein, and the ever-diligent Susan Knopf.
The other reporters and I engaged in several minutes of generic conversation concerning the drought as we waited for the “listening session” to come to a close. My direct action opposition to the Willits Bypass was a primary source of awkwardness in this conversation, being that Anderson had written about me for the Press Dem and Frederiksen's paper has featured me on its front page on a few recent occasions, and the last thing they likely expected was to be seated beside me as a media peer, awaiting an encounter with powerful state officials. Knopf joked that we had been shunted into the side room to allow the officials to escape.
Next thing I knew, I was standing on West Church St. outside of the Ukiah Valley Conference Center, alongside the following people, in whose faces I was shoving a digital recorder: State Water Resources Control Board Chair Felicia Marcus, State Secretary of Natural Resources John Laird, State Food and Agriculture Secretary Karen Ross (former long-time chair of the fourth largest agribusiness lobby in California, the California Association of Wine Grape Growers – see a 2011 piece I co-wrote at https://www.theava.com/archives/11643), California Office of Emergency Services Director Mark Ghilarducci, and Deputy Director of California Department of Public Health Center for Environmental Health Mark Starr.
We were informed by an unidentified handler, a man in fancy attire, that the press conference would only last ten minutes. A large SUV was parked on the street right next to us, with the driver already in position to chauffeur these leading regulatory officials to the mud puddle known as Lake Mendocino.
According to the public officials, there is some great “thinking” about how to deal with the drought taking place in Mendocino County, especially in Willits.
Secretary of Food and Agriculture Ross: “I was very impressed by how forward-thinking people are [in Mendocino County] as far as the kind of projects they are doing to invest in resiliency for this region.”
Secretary of Natural Resources Laird: “Many times, in my history with local governments, people ask the state to do it for them. What we heard today is everybody is taking it as far as they can, and asking for assistance for doing what they are trying to do locally.”
State Water Resources Control Board Chair Marcus: “That’s fantastic, yeah… It’s very advanced thinking.
A major focus of the conversation was Willits officials' work to secure a $250,000 grant to purchase and install a pipe to transfer well water to connect to the city’s distribution system, as well as to purchase a new pump. This grant is a notable achievement, although California could theoretically have several hundred million more on hand to deal with watershed issues (preferably responsible and non politically stilted wetlands restoration, unlike the variety Caltrans is pursuing in Willits) if the Bypass were scrubbed, or at least greatly downsized.
I managed to get in one question before the officials made their departure.
"I have a question about Willits," I started. "By far the most water-intensive project in town is Caltrans' Willits Bypass freeway project, which many if not most Willits residents oppose on the grounds that it's an unnecessary waste. What sorts of mechanisms do you have for canceling projects like that, which don't make sense, especially in the context of a drought? By the way, the Bypass has been very contentious in Willits, and I suspect that didn't come up in your meeting, so you may not be aware of it."
My intervention prompted a hasty counter-intervention from Willits City Council Member Bruce Burton. Again, Burton had been invited to the exclusive meeting, whereas Willits City Council Member Madge Strong, an outspoken opponent of Caltrans' wildly disproportionate approach to addressing Willits' "traffic problems," had not (Strong was recognized by the AVA as Local Elected Official of the Year for 2013 in relation to her intelligent positions on this and many other issues).
"I'll jump in on that," Burton said. "The elected body of the City of Willits has supported the Willits Freeway Project for the 24 years I've been on the Willits City Council. And the notion the Willits community does not support it is not based in any scientific data [in fact, the only quantifiable data on the subject is that 90 percent of business owners on Main St. signed a petition opposing the project in 2002. Meanwhile, at least 1,500 Willits-area residents signed a petition opposing it last year]. The elected officials of the community have always supported it. And, the city is looking – and will – make available its treated waste water that goes into fields in the summer time – that water may be – we're working contractually to secure that agreement to supply that water for the project."
State Water Resources Control Board Chair Marcus echoed the statement about treated wastewater being used in the project. In living fact, the Bypass drew at least four million gallons of water from three wells in the valley last year (granted, this technically isn't city-owned water), including the Shuster's well on Center Valley Rd., the Drip Works well on East Hill Rd., and one mystery well that the State Water Board refuses to disclose to the public, even going so far as to redact information about it in a document I just obtained, courtesy of a friend who used the California Public Records Act.
The Burton-Marcus narrative also excludes the fact that the Bypass is destroying the largest area of wetlands in northern California of any project since World War II, and that wetlands are crucial to the health of the entire watershed, with one of their main functions being groundwater recharge.
The handler of the press conference attempted to move things along, but I insisted on getting an answer to the question I actually posed. State Water Resources Control Board Chair Marcus, whose agency has gone out of the way to accommodate Caltrans at most every turn, was now on the spot. Her answer had about as much substance, as much actual nutritional value, as the refined sucrose which the Danish I'd wolfed down at Schat's about an hour before was laden.
"Every project has all kinds of permitting provisions and provisions under state law,” she said. "Those are the ones that go through. Sometimes a separate issue about what kind of water you're using is something you can try to do something about. But a project has whatever its permitting process is, and that's all laid out by statute and law.”
The SUV was already running by this point. A few moments later, the regulatory officials were packing into the car. The Willits city officials also made an unceremonious departure. Only the Reuters reporter, Sharon Bernstein, and I were left.
I asked her if she was interested in further discussing the issues I had posed, being that she is covering water issues in Willits. I shared with her that earlier that day, I'd done a Google News search and found 462 articles that reference the drought in relation to Willits. It is likely that not a single one refers to the Willits Bypass.
“My story is for a national audience, but maybe I can work in the points you raised for two or three paragraphs,” she said.